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Social media key to hospital emergency preparedness

March 28th, 2012

by Mike Morrison

Mike Morrison media relations officerEmergency preparedness is a critical aspect of hospital operations. Though imagining, discussing and planning for potential disaster scenarios is never pleasant, it's necessary to ensure the hospital can handle these challenging and potentially chaotic situations quickly and efficiently.

Hospital communicators play an important role in emergency preparedness because of the need to distribute information quickly and accurately. With the emergence of social media, communicators have more tools at their disposal and failing to use them in an emergency is a lost opportunity.

Though there are some recent examples of social media use during an emergency, understanding how utilizing social media during an emergency situation differs from during a public relations crisis is important. Although responding to a public relations crisis via social media requires quick response, communicators must take the time to carefully consider their tactics and messaging to preserve relationships with various stakeholders.


Social media use in a hospital emergency means sending out information to directly affect the public and its actions on a minute-by-minute basis. For example, if there's a fire in the emergency department rendering it unusable, it's important to let potential patients know immediately so they don't arrive expecting access to emergency services. Along with the hospital's website, Facebook and Twitter provide useful channels to distribute this information quickly. Posts don't have to be overly detailed but a simple, brief explanation of the situation, together with a commitment to providing future updates, should suffice in the short term. When it comes to communicating effectively via social media in emergency situations, hospitals can learn from examples set by other institutions.

Last December, Virginia Tech experienced a second campus shooting following the tragedy in 2007. During the most recent event, the university took a three-pronged approach to its online communication strategy. It immediately posted information on its home page, as well Facebook and Twitter. Including information on its social media channels not only efficiently spread their message but also provided a back-up when its website crashed presumably due to increased traffic. By combining these three communications vehicles Virginia Tech was able provide students, staff and the general public with critical safety information.

Here's one of the tweets:

Gun shots reported- Coliseum Parking lot. Stay Inside. Secure doors. Emergency personnel responding. Call 911 for help.

That was quickly followed by:

Suspect described as white male, gray sweat pants, gray hat w/neon green brim, maroon hoodie and backpack. On foot towards McComas. Call 911

These particular tweets provide all pertinent information even with Twitter's 140-character limit and gives followers specific instruction to stay inside. Like Virginia Tech, the Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic in Pittsburgh used Twitter to provide information when it experienced a similar situation.

Imagining an active shooter situation or other disaster at the hospital can be stomach-turning. But by taking a fresh look at disaster response protocols and establishing a plan to include social media when distributing information, hospital communicators can perform their job more effectively, as well as positively influence events on the ground that may help responders bring the event to a quicker close.

Mike Morrison is a media relations officer at a large Boston teaching hospital and a music fan. You can follow him on twitter @MDMorrison82.


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